Weapons of Mass Distraction

26 04 2011

A grenade crashes through a window.  Avatars scatter, profanity saturates the voice chat lines, and some kid hundreds of miles away is watching the mass hysteria through a sniper lens, chuckling as he methodically picks off those who won’t be killed by the blast.  Suddenly, the grenade goes off and carefully modeled bodies ragdoll[1] through the air—perhaps a few of which have been dismembered, and some even blasted to fragments.  The kid playing as a sniper receives several rewards: a multi-kill bonus, headshot bonuses (for each one he picked off before the blast), and a point for each person who he killed during the frenzy.

As is expected, someone spots his sniper fire, and he too becomes the victim of a blast, sniper fire, or a barrage of Kalashnikov bullets—and the killer receives a bonus reward for ending the kid sniper’s killing spree[2].  This continues for every player for a period of time (usually ten minutes).  The round ends, and the player gets to see his player statistics (i.e. kill count, deaths, kill/death ratio).  Those with the best statistics are on top, and the worst on bottom.  There is a point to the story and it all boils down to what happens next, during the player statistics screen, before the start of the next round (usually 2-3 minutes).  Players exchange banter and insults, but more importantly is that they also critique the level, the players, and the game producers.  This is exactly the banter that the game producers want to hear: what the players think of the level, of the game play, of the graphics, etc.  This banter is what helps the game producers know what types of games people want to play.  I argue that this is exactly why we have seen a steady increase in the number of violent games, and why even those games that are not inherently violent succumb to our violent nature.  I will specifically use Grand Theft Auto 4 as my main source during this breakdown, but will sporadically refer to several games throughout, including SPORE, World of Warcraft, The Sims, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.  Each of these artifacts links to several theories from both the Laughey and Maasik and Solomon texts, but the most prominent of theories are the theories of interactionism (Laughey 78) and standardization (Laughey 124).

The Not-So-Tough Guy

Laughey explains that interactionism is the study of how we relate to one another (or our surroundings) in a specific social setting.  This theory specifically relates to the initial preconceptions of what a game is like or about based on the individual’s social surroundings.  Imagine a television is set up in a mall.  Attached to the television is an entertainment system with a game running.  In this game, a man runs around, drives cars, and several other harmless actions, with perhaps the occasional fender bender.  The graphics are realistic enough to be entertaining, but players can still obviously distinguish between real life and the game.  The game is mildly entertaining.  The player turns off the game and ejects the disc to see what game it is.  It turns out that the game is Grand Theft Auto 4.  Granted, this is grossly oversimplifying the entire “discovery” process, but for now we’re dumbing down the average consumer.  At this point, the game takes on a completely new dynamic for the player, and the social divide appears between those who believe Grand Theft Auto 4 is bad, and those who find it entertaining.  Avid gamers would excitedly reinsert the disc and commence with the mass carnage that is so rightfully associated with the violence of the Grand Theft Auto series.  Those opposed to violence in game entertainment begin their scoffing, and probably even report the outrage of such a game being publicly displayed to some sort of authority figure in the mall.  Not to say that either the gamer or the scoffer are correct in their preconceptions of such games, but both parties have based their viewpoints on the interactions within their social group.

A second concept that relates to the consumer’s preconceptions is shown in the study of the social context of The Sims.  The individual derives the meaning of everything in society directly from friends, producers, coworkers, family, etc.  This is where I feel we begin to see a primitive screening of our predilection towards violence and aggression.  The Sims is not an inherently violent game.  In The Sims, the goal is to create an avatar and help the avatar live a life of its own.  The avatar can get a job, get married, have children, and even die.  Where the meaning comes into play is what the player does when he’s bored of the game.  Most people would simply not play the game anymore.  However, with the right social group, the knowledge that is derived from that group can help the player exploit certain flaws in The Sims, to which the player would have otherwise been oblivious.  These flaws, when exploited correctly, can make the game extremely violent, even somewhat sociopathic.  For instance, players have the ability to build pools for their avatar.  While the avatar is swimming in the pool, the player can build a wall around the pool.  If done correctly, the avatar will not be able to get out of the water, and after a time will drown.  As another example, if the player is bored with the game enough, the player can burn down the avatar’s house—with the avatar still inside.  Unless you know the right people, the chances of the average consumer finding these flaws by accident are very slim.  To the average consumer, The Sims is harmless entertainment, yet if you did a simple search on YouTube for “kill sims”, the top results are all the different ways you can kill an avatar in The Sims, many of which I explained already.  The total views for just the top three videos are around 2.5-million views.

A final point relating to interactionism deals with social status.  The idea of social status can be applied to most, if not all modern games.  With the advent of multiplayer gaming, players are more connected now than ever before.  Whether the game is a fully immersive online role playing game (World of Warcraft and Everquest), or a casual poker match, players are connected across the globe.  The current generation has an interesting phenomenon unfolding in front of them.  The world is getting smaller.  Societies are gradually becoming more like each other, cultures are becoming highly mixed, and social status is becoming a global spectacle.  Take for example Bungie Studios’ award winning societal marvel, the Halo series.  The Halo series is perhaps one of the highest ranking game series ever created.  Interestingly enough, the single player campaign is not where the game earned its success.  The Halo series earned its success in its multiplayer capabilities.  Halo is not impressive.  The physics are subpar, the weapon selection is limited, and you do nothing but run around, throw grenades, and shoot aliens.  What makes it the game of choice for everyone is the status that is associated with the multiplayer game play, more specifically kill counts and ranks.  Kill counts are almost always directly associated with a player’s respect in an international social group.

When we dive a little deeper into the psychology and sociology of such phenomena, we start treading into the territory of defining masculinity.  This is an entire subject unto itself, but I do believe that masculinity and violence are directly related.  When in social settings, the male wants to fit in.  The male suddenly digresses into this primordial idea that a man has to be masculine, and to be masculine means violence.  Since the “new lad” is not this masculine “man’s man”, he finds other means of proving his worth socially.  Enter the Halo series, the Grand Theft Auto series, the Battlefield series, and the Call of Duty series.  Many games in the past have tried what each of these game series are currently doing.  These series are doing so well because they happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The “new lad” needed an answer, these series delivered.  Every one of these games stands out specifically because every single one has multiplayer capability—and with each game, the multiplayer is the most popular feature of the game, since it gives each player the chance to stand out and appear tougher than average.  The simulated violence allows the player to be something he’s not and manipulate his social status.

They All Look the Same Anyway

About halfway through Laughey’s Key Themes in Media Theory, he discusses Theodor Adorno’s standardization.  Adorno uses the example of music, but this can really apply to just about any form of entertainment—including game entertainment.  Most games incorporate some form of violent actions, with some being obviously more blatant than others.  Since Grand Theft Auto 4 is the true artifact being discussed in this document and contains an intense amount of violence, it seems only natural to use it as an example.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 will also be discussed in the analysis of the differences and similarities of each.  In Grand Theft Auto 4, the player is given an array of weapons, including grenades, Molotov cocktails, rocket launchers, AK-47s, etc.  Niko Bellic, our “hero” of the game (and the player’s avatar), is a contract killer.  Logically, the majority of missions carried out will be assassinations and murders, with the occasional escort driving mission.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (or MW2 for short) argues that the game is about good-guy versus bad-guy, so it’s technically an acceptable violence.  This principle does hold true—but only for the single player campaign.  Unfortunately for that argument, the single player campaign is not the most popular feature of MW2.  As was mentioned before, the most popular feature of most first-person shooter games is the multiplayer.  Remember, in Grand Theft Auto 4, Niko Bellic is a cold-blooded killer.  In the multiplayer features of all first-person shooter games, it is not good versus bad: It is player versus player.  This means that all kills that happen in multiplayer are not morally based, but are simply intended to increase the player’s high score.  There is no moral redemption, it’s the same as taking that rocket launcher in Grand Theft Auto 4 and blasting a group of civilians (who may or may not be shooting at you).  Every violent game has the same type of violence: unjustifiable killing.

Standardization can also show how “state of the art” is not necessarily what it seems.  Take game graphics for example.  Since games have become three-dimensional, every new generation believes that their modern games are so realistic that they have a hard time telling the difference.  These are claims that the game is “state of the art”.  However, game producers purposefully and cautiously just meet the societal idea of what is considered “realistic”.  Current generation developers have the ability and the technology to incorporate the most realistic graphics that man has ever seen into modern games.  So why don’t they do it?  For one, it would set the bar too high for their future game development, which equals a loss of profit.  But they also do it for the violence.  Game producers won’t conscientiously include violent acts in games if the game is so realistic that the consumer really cannot tell the difference between reality and the virtual world.  Current game graphics do have enough realism to put them a step ahead of their predecessors, but are not realistic enough to be taken seriously.

The final argument which really ties all these ideas together is the purpose for the game’s existence in the first place.  I argue that these games have been developed to fill the desire we have for violence.  Game entertainment was not developed overnight.  It has been a slow and arduous evolution.  No one twenty years ago would have thought that we’d end up with a video game about a contract assassin driving people around.  Games themselves did not evolve on their own.  The Grand Theft Auto series didn’t get worse simply because makers have pushed the limits on what they can get away with.  The consumer wanted what the game developer could give them.  That is what consumerism is all about: see a need, fill a need, then create a need and repeat.

In conclusion, games really have shown themselves to be a byproduct of our desires and inclinations.  We are naturally violent people.  Since the first slaying (Cain and Abel) to modern nuclear warfare, nothing has changed.  To say that one thing or another is a catalyst of violent behavior is to ignore a very socially complex issue related to masculinity, one of which I feel our generation will ultimately define.

Sources Cited

Laughey, Dan. Key Themes in Media Theory. Berkshire: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Grand Theft Auto 4.  Version 1.0.3.0.  Take-Two Interactive Software.  April 2010

SPORE.  Version 1.2.0.2818.  Electronic Arts Inc.  April 2010

The Sims 3.  Version 0.0.0.11190.  Electronic Arts Inc.  April 2010

World of Warcraft.  Version 3.3.3.  Blizzard Entertainment.  April 2010


[1] Method of game physics where the avatar seemingly loses all bone mass (i.e., “flops” around).

[2] Player meets or exceeds a pre-set amount of kills before being killed.

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